Downtown Meridian. Photo by Joseph.

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Better Days in My Town

The town that we all love
The town that has the reputation
That no-body denies
It’s the place where
Joy is boss
You’re never cross . . .

We couldn’t fully fathom, it seems now, the place’s riches. The lovely tree-shaded rolling lanes lined with cottages and grander homes and gardens; the endless days of box hockey and kick-the-can and biking to every corner of town; the characters and the watchful old people; the electrifying fall nights in the lofty cement bleachers of Ray Stadium; the bustling downtown, where trains rumbled by relentlessly, friends and cousins lined up for Temple Theater movie shows, and the aging Threefoot Building—east Mississippi’s own skyscraper!—impressed without fail.

As my grandfather, a one-time vaudeville performer, conveyed in his adoring ditty, Meridian, Mississippi, was a town to be reckoned with. It had identity and a certain swagger.

But change was happening; the certain sense of promise was becoming uncertain. The shift was gradual, almost imperceptible to those of us who grew up there in the sixties, but Meridian’s glory days were on the fade.

We had taken much for granted.

The Warners, circa 1960

The Warners, circa 1960

For white children such as myself, products of professional-class parents, decent public schools, and stout churches, there was little reason to think that the ascent of Meridian, a city of some 45,000 at the time, wouldn’t continue without interruption. My very busy father, a lawyer who was elected district attorney, and mother, a theater director and speech instructor, seemed caught up in an irrepressible civic march of progress.

Nestled amid the hills and forests of a remote spur of the Appalachian Mountains, this Mississippi community claimed more than its share of industry and culture in the post–World War II years. It boasted a renowned community theater, an orchestra, a respected junior college and municipal airport, and even a state hospital for the mentally ill. Everyone closely followed the high school football team, the Wildcats, which perennially embarrassed the players fielded by lesser communities around the state. Football games at Ray Stadium, built many years earlier to seat 14,000, at a scale virtually unheard of for high school stadiums, approached the realm of religious experience. (As seconds ticked away during a goal line stand, the chant “GO Cats GO! GO Cats GO!” would rise up like an earthquake, shake the stout structure, and echo through surrounding neighborhoods.)

Ever since its gritty, rapid comeback from the destructive wrath of Union General William Sherman, who was famously credited with reporting, “Meridian no longer exists” after torching the strategic railroad crossroads in February 1864, my hometown has flirted with greatness. Jimmie Rodgers, the “singing brakeman” of the 1920s who shaped the development of country music, was from there. The sixteen-story Threefoot Building, an Art Deco masterpiece built in 1929 by Jewish-German immigrants, along with the older Weidmann’s Restaurant a few blocks away, gave Meridian special status as a center for trade and good times. It was at the city’s airport in 1935 that a pair of scrappy young flight enthusiasts, brothers Fred and Al Key, stayed aloft in a small plane called the Ole Miss for twenty-seven days (with the help of in-flight refueling and supply deliveries) to set a new flight record, in the process boosting Americans’ general confidence in aviation travel.

Beginning in the mid-1960s, Meridian native Hartley Peavey built an audio equipment manufacturing company that would eventually become one of the world’s largest. The homegrown innovator and entrepreneur never realized dreams of becoming a rock star, but his amplifiers made rock ‘n’ roll history.

Meridian wasn’t a big place, but it was a place where big things could happen. Boosters dubbed it the “Queen City,” a reference to its rivalry with the capital city of Jackson, ninety miles to the west on Interstate 20. (By other accounts, the “Queen” moniker stemmed from the tantalizing fact that a famous Gypsy queen was buried in Meridian about a century ago.) When construction of the Meridian Naval Air Station (NAS) just north of town began in the late 1950s, roughly coinciding with my personal arrival at the old Riley Hospital, the military project reaffirmed the city’s reputation as a New South success story. The appearance on Meridian streets of young fighter jocks in their sporty convertibles, often accompanied by overexcited local girls, was another sign that Meridian was stepping onto a bigger American stage.

Proud sentiments filtered down to Meridian’s children; I vaguely recall field trips out to Meridian NAS to gain a glimpse of new-generation jets, and we learned about the Key brothers and assorted other local heroes. But we were far more concerned with the more ordinary details of life in a small Southern city: picking sandlot teams, catching fireflies in jars, making skateboards for rides down steep back streets, collecting and trading beer cans bearing obscure labels, playing all-night Monopoly games during sleepovers, going skinny-dipping if the opportunity presented itself (especially during the more sultry summer nights), making crafts and hearing stories about a most impressive young Jesus at Vacation Bible School. Meridian was the ideal setting for these things—and for growing up generally.

Even as our parents joined their contemporaries in propelling the growth of Meridian’s Jaycees (Junior Chamber of Commerce), they encouraged us to enjoy small things, to use our imaginations. One page from a circa 1960 scrapbook kept by my father preserves a Meridian Star clipping about the Jaycees development drive—as well as a note to the Tooth Fairy from my oldest sister. “Dear Fairy,” it says, “I’m sorry but I lost my tooth. I hope it’s ok. If I find it I’ll put it under my pillow.” Meridian was a fine place for the Tooth Fairy or for Halloween trick-or-treating.

My town served up exciting Little League seasons and, in spacious Highland Park, a wonderful old swimming pool and carousel; Highland dated to the early twentieth century, when it became one of America’s “streetcar pleasure parks.” I learned to swim in the city pool one summer, and spent memorable afternoons whirling around in the historic carousel house, engulfed in its tinny carnival music. Just around the corner was a snowball stand with all sorts of syrup flavors. Meridian also offered some of the more generous and talented public school teachers to grace the profession, people like Barbara Walker of the third grade at Poplar Springs Elementary, who brought in guest speakers, introduced us to classic children’s books (Charlotte’s Web comes to mind) and forgave our more embarrassing outbursts during show-and-tell.

Leila-May with her young charges

Leila-May with her young charges

At the time, at very young ages, we had little awareness of racial injustice and the gathering storm of the civil rights movement. Meridian was as segregated as any southern town; there were no African American playmates. The “colored” and “white” water fountains in public places aroused mild curiosity, but what happened in or to black Meridian was mostly invisible to us. What we did have was Leila-May, a young black woman who served as housekeeper and, because of my parents’ many responsibilities (hectic careers, four children at the time), surrogate mother. Leila-May, who lived in a crowded, rundown shack on Meridian’s north side, filled a stereotypical role, and it speaks volumes that I never learned or felt obliged to use her last name. Still, she administered tender care and stern discipline, and the affection between us all was genuine. Her influence was such during one period that my brother and I, unconsciously picking up elements of her dialect, refined a hybrid language that only the two of us could understand. This was jarring to our parents, who promptly arranged a visit to a speech therapist.

Our personal adventures in Meridian reached well beyond secret languages. To be clear: in this kind of town, populated mostly with trustworthy people, parents didn’t keep close tabs on you. This freedom allowed room for all kinds of questionable behavior. We had firecracker wars with friends (“Get rid of it quick when you light it, so it doesn’t blow a finger off!”). Countless yards got rolled with toilet paper. No disrespect to Harper Lee’s fictional characters in To Kill a Mockingbird, but we had a neighborhood attraction ranking up there with the mysterious Boo Radley: a high schooler known as Sambo Mockbee, who lived in a spooky house across the street from ours, a creaky wood structure that had been a hunting lodge before the city grew up around it. Samuel Mockbee, who later became a famous architect in Jackson and at Auburn University, taught the neighborhood small fry how to play five-card poker and concocted terrifying tales about Mossback, a creature who crept around the fringes of a Boy Scout camp and picked the scouts off, one by one.

My older brother and I hadn’t forgotten about Mossback when we signed on with Boy Scout Troop No. 40, sponsored by our church, Popular Springs United Methodist. But there were more pressing concerns than ghost stories. Our troop had its good points, but also turned out to be one of the rowdiest in the Choctaw Area Council. Our games of tackle-the-man-with-the-ball were positively bone-crunching, and some of our wayward members enjoyed swooping through the camps of other troops during camporees to cut down their tents. I didn’t advance far through the Scout ranks and had mild envy for my brother, who earned Eagle Scout and even the honorary Order of the Arrow, qualifying him for participation in a Native American–inspired dance ritual next to a bonfire.

Our parents’ work lives and other pursuits expanded our horizons in all sorts of ways, for they were fairly public figures. Neither was from the east Mississippi town—my mother grew up in Tupelo, to the north, my father in the college town of Cleveland in the Delta. After they married and began having babies, they joined the young professionals who sensed opportunity in Meridian.

As an actress and theater director, my mother carved out a fine reputation at the Meridian Little Theater and at Meridian Junior College, where she also taught speech classes. She was attractive, enunciated beautifully, and made money on the side filming commercials for all sorts of local companies, often enlisting her four children in the homegrown ad spots; I can still recall my line from one commercial: “Dixiana Bacon—It’s goooood!”

Easter Sunday with Mama, front yard, late 1960s

Easter Sunday with Mama, front yard, late 1960s

Although slight in stature, Eloise Warner (Eloise Comer in her second marriage) cut quite an authoritative figure in the director’s chair. She could do the same at home, and on the occasions where meting out punishment was warranted, she leaned toward the dramatic. When I lifted a Baby Ruth bar from the grocery checkout line and she later discovered me enjoying the stolen candy, Mama hauled me right back to the store and had me deliver a fulsome confession to the manager. Crying impressed her not at all. When my brother was once reported huddling with junior high buddies to smoke cigarettes, a practice widely associated with the bowling alley hoods, my mother surprised us by not even raising her voice. Instead, she sat my brother down in the living room, handed him her pack of cigarettes and insisted that, since he was such a big man now, he could just smoke all of them, one right after another. This proved a lengthy and quite unpleasant exercise, and I doubt that he ever smoked again.

Drama of a different sort found its way to my lawyer father, especially after he was elected district attorney in the mid-1960s. Always drawn to politics, relishing the public eye, George Warner was determined to make an impact in his adopted community. We trailed him across his electoral district’s three counties, handing out “Let George Do It” fans and nail files at sweltering summer political rallies. After he won, my father settled into prosecuting a predictable mix of robbery, drug, gambling, and whorehouse cases, with an occasional bank robbery or murder. We were proud of how our own Perry Mason toiled in preparation for each trial and stalked the halls of the Lauderdale County Courthouse. What no one bargained for is that he would be swept up into Meridian’s significant chapter in the modern civil rights wars.

My father didn’t advocate for upending the racial status quo in 1960s Meridian, but he did believe in the rule of law. He despised the terrorist tactics of the resurging Ku Klux Klan, and as night riders began burning black churches and threatening Jewish leaders, he became an essential ally of Meridian police and FBI agents who were trying to bring the Klan to justice. The consequences of taking his oath of office seriously became clear enough one night when a commotion erupted in front of our modest 25th Avenue house and, peering through the curtains, we were perplexed and rattled at the sight of a burning cross. As it happened, that night my parents were out, and we absorbed the ritualistic warning in the company of a babysitter. When my father later learned of the cross-burning, he communicated a message through known members of the Klan network: If any of you venture to scare my children again, I will put aside the official prosecutor’s title and settle the matter personally.

The local struggle against the Klan and its sympathizers gained intensity in the summer of 1968 when a shadowy young hit man for the Kluckers, Thomas Tarrants of Mobile, began waging guerrilla war against local Jews who had spoken out loudly against the attacks on black churches. Adept at the use of dynamite and timing devices, Tarrants blew up the education building of Meridian’s synagogue, Temple Beth Israel, late one night and, eluding capture, returned to Meridian a month later with plans to blow up the home of a leading Jewish businessman. Meridian police had been tipped off about the second plan and were waiting in the bushes; a gun battle ensued, Tarrants’s female companion was killed, and Tarrants and a police officer suffered critical wounds. These events struck very close to home: the family of my best friend at the time attended Temple Beth Israel. In time, my father successfully prosecuted Tarrants on multiple counts of attempted murder. While he sought the death penalty, the Klan hit man was instead given a lengthy sentence to the state prison.

Within a few years, my father was voted out of office, denied a third term he felt he had earned. Perhaps he had made too many enemies as DA. But his role in helping restore order during a volatile time, when doing so could be quite hazardous, was remembered. In a letter to my father in December 1968, Police Chief C. L. Gunn expressed his “sincere thanks and appreciation for the hard work and the end results in the Tarrants case,” then added, “I believe that working together we can have a better city in which to live and raise our families.”

There was reason to think that things could, indeed, get better for Meridian. With the atmosphere of fear and violence subsiding, the community faced the myriad challenges of integrating its public schools. It was not easy, as I can recall from my first semester with a racially mixed seventh-grade class attending what had been an African American junior high. There were occasional fistfights and cultural divides to bridge. But the Meridian Public Schools still had tremendous assets; people from all walks of life still filed into Ray Stadium to watch the Wildcats play. Many of the city’s cultural institutions were holding their own, and coming years saw a wave of real estate development just to the south of the old downtown, as suburban-style malls became the rage.

But fundamentally, all was not well. Meridian followed a pattern familiar to so many small cities in the South and elsewhere: job centers shifted or disappeared altogether; people of means, most of them white, began decamping for the open spaces and more suburban schools out in the county, or enrolled their children in private schools. Most important, too many of Meridian’s bright young people moved away, never to return and provide the essential replenishment of civic energy. Meridian prepared to celebrate breaking the 50,000 mark in its municipal population, but instead the count began sliding backward.

At the age of thirteen, I left Meridian. My parents had divorced, and I, along with two siblings, joined my mother in moving to California after she married a navy pilot. (My father remarried, too, and picked up more children in the bargain.) As years passed and I returned to spend summers, landing a college reporting internship one summer at the Meridian Star, I noticed more signs of community atrophy. Downtown buildings that had once been so vibrant now looked sad as empty storefronts proliferated. Eventually the fabled Threefoot Building was shuttered and fenced off, its distinctive architectural touches prone to dislodging and shattering on the sidewalk. “For Sale” signs have sprouted along lanes where houses now suffer from neglect—the same houses that once were the picture of the American dream. I just don’t see the collective pride and sense of promise these days.

Threefoot Building. Photo by  toml1959.

Threefoot Building. Photo by toml1959.

There are some hopeful signs. During a recent visit to see my father and other relatives, I was encouraged to read about the efforts of a Threefoot Building preservation society, and about one city councilman’s drive to combat housing blight. The restoration of a historic downtown opera house has revived a stunning live performance venue, just a short walk from the Amtrak train station. Meanwhile, a local branch of Mississippi State University is bringing new energy and investment, and I’ve heard of an effort to bring volunteers into the public schools to strengthen literacy teaching. Speaking for those who moved away from Meridian but in some ways never left, I dearly hope a new generation of leaders—in the spirit of the barnstorming Key brothers—will emerge and make good things happen again. Childhood memories offer useful reference points. This once remarkable town deserves a fate better than just muddling into the future, destined for irrelevance.